If you've been reading other WWDC takes around the web, you'll see similar thoughts and comments. Moving 2017's WWDC to San Jose made the sometimes sprawling conference (and its various unaffiliated events) feel like the best little tech town in the world. I'm going to be honest: I was nervous going into this year. I initially didn't even book a hotel past Tuesday, originally opting to stay in San Francisco for the remainder of my trip. I figured that after the keynote, non-badged folks would gravitate back to the North Bay.
I couldn't have been happier to be wrong.
Despite thousands of people descending on the McEnery Convention Center and its surrounding blocks for the week, San Jose felt strangely calm — welcome in a way that the South of Market area never really has. In SoMA, there were places for developers to congregate, of course, but the "chosen" (those with WWDC badges) always felt very distanced from those attending other conferences, or those in town to meet with folks and see friends.
It didn't feel nearly so much that way this year, perhaps because San Jose still has some new and shiny to it; attendees were just as busy exploring its many coffee shops and eateries as they were visiting sessions and eating boxed lunches. I frequently would find myself surrounded by pass holders, AltConf-ers, and Layers folks alike, having conversations I don't know if we'd ever make work in San Francisco.
The fact is, SF is a city blessed with eateries and bars on every corner, and attendees tend to disappear across it when sessions end; San Jose's relatively tight-knit downtown meant that WWDC attendees and alternative conference-goers were all on the same street, visiting the same bars, eating the same delicious waffles. At one point in the week (and I'm sure others as well), one local coffee shop practically became an honorary WWDC lab, with several of us NDA-signed folk bantering back and forth about decisions made in iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra.
One of the other big reasons why this WWDC felt so friendly this year was, in part, Ashley Nelson-Hornstein and Soroush Khanlou's app Beacon: Launched in part to help folks find cool things to do with fellow attendees in San Jose, Beacon became the secret hit of the conference and its surrounding parties, offering one of the best ways I've found in recent memory to meet up with new people in safe and friendly environments.
I chatted with strangers about WWDC talks, took a Lyft pilgrimage with a group to Cupertino and the Company Store, and even hosted a lunch get-together — all with little or no lead time. Also, as a person who doesn't often get to seek out new people during WWDC because of various work concerns, I found it lovely to get a chance to meet new people or get to know someone more personally through quick events when I had free time.
It reminded me a lot of the very early Twitter days, when we'd use the service to find out what our mutual followers and friends were up to on any given evening, before all the politics and eggs and hashtags got involved. It'll be interesting to see how Nelson-Hornstein and Khanlou evolve Beacon after WWDC, but I'm certainly looking forward to its next step.
I also appreciate Apple's ever-increasing emphasis on attendee diversity and instruction. The scholarship program was bigger, child care was an option for attendees for the first time ever, and in an unexpected but welcome move, the company went all-in on offering multiple design sessions for non-technical badge-holders. I would still like to see more work from Apple on diversifying its keynote stage lineup — the company has thousands of talented women and minorities working in leadership roles behind the scenes, and it's important for young developers and aspiring Apple employees alike to see people like them slaying a keynote presentation. It's one of the reasons why ex-Apple Apple Music exec Bozoma St John was such an important figure at 2016's keynote, and I want more of it next year.
I also mentioned this briefly on Twitter, but from both a practicality standpoint and one of equality, I hope WWDC's event staff considers making its bathrooms gender-neutral in 2018. I know there are those who balk at this concept — especially given the potential for harassment at a conference that is still largely male — but it's a small and important gesture Apple could provide for its transgender developers and employees, especially given all of the recent drama over this topic. If WWDC can successfully show that gender-neutral bathrooms can both be safe and cut down on often-terrible lopsided lines, it make a lot of impact with very small effort.
"Okay, Serenity," you might be saying, "It's all well and good that you've spent 800 words chatting about the conference itself, but what about the products? The software? The HomePod?!"
I think it speaks to how good the conference itself was that my reactions to Apple's biggest product announcements this week are this far down. The conference could have stood on its own without any goodies or hardware toys — but we were lucky enough to get both. (Well. Lucky and exhausted.)
Rene and I attended both the lengthy keynote and the hands-on area afterward, where I got to experiment with VR on the Mac, AR with an iPad, drawing on the new iPad Pro, staring wistfully at the iMac Pro from a distance, and chat with calligrapher and artist extraordinaire Seb Lester, who created some of WWDC's iPad Pro artwork.
VR on the Mac is still early days, no question, but I was very impressed with how smooth it all felt. I ran through a demo on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with external GPU and the HTC Vive, and — caveats on it being a demo aside — I found myself very quickly captivated by the experience and enjoyment of cutting together a VR-ready Final Cut Pro timeline, then experiencing it first-hand. VR is fun from a user standpoint, but I'm more interested in this from a development perspective: These are the first real bricks laid for real, high-quality VR film and game development work on the Mac. It's a signal to developers interested in VR work that they don't have to resort to testing or building on PCs, and a flag to professional video and graphics editors everywhere that Apple might actually want to put some work into serving its pro audience.
The company will have to prove its mettle before graphics artists may believe them, and that's fair; it's also pretty obvious that Apple's providing these tools because it sees value in cultivating a VR-based developer community — and I'm sure just a little bit because of the potential money from an Apple VR-based App Store.
I'm lumping AR into that group, too: ARKit is a tool to court developers, plain and simple. Few users are going to play AR-based games holding a 12.9-inch iPad in front of their face, but users also aren't going to buy an awesome AR headset or tool without the games or activities to use it with. By laying the groundwork for ARKit and AR-based development, Apple can take time to perfect whatever hardware experience it deems right for the feature, all while third-party developers help make the platform appealing to the end-user.
There are plenty of other things to highlight out of WWDC. iOS 11 has what feels like 5000 new features, and while they may not all be the kind of blockbuster magic expected from a Hollywood studio, they fix a lot of little nitpicks with the platform and provide a lot of delight. (My personal favorite: For the first time in 10 iOS releases, Mail search works on the server. Hallelujah.) macOS, despite its dad-joke-worthy name, has a lot of small but smart improvements. And watchOS continues to tell the Health story in an interesting and worthwhile way.
But of the new long-term technologies announced at WWDC, ProMotion wins my vote. I'm sure I'll be talking a lot more about why I think this technology is incredible once I have my new 10.5-inch iPad in hand on Wednesday, but let's be honest: Are you really surprised I'm going to love a feature that halves the latency of Apple Pencil?
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